first historian of Texas, "the most beautiful along the entire frontier of
New Spain . . . the Queen of all the missions."
The church of Mission Concepci6n reflects the "plateresque" style
of architecture, with contrasting bare walls and ornamental doorways and
windows. Mission artists encircled the rooms with bold bands of color,
and used them, too, to give depth and background to niches and
cartouches. Mission Concepci6n is the oldest unrestored church in the
The long, narrow, stone church of San Juan, as well as the priory and
the granary, were completed by 1756. A description of the frescoes in the
chapel, recorded in 1890 by William Corer and French priest Francis
Bouchu, delineate best the curious mixture of the Old World and Indian
Texas, and verify what was accomplished by both mission-teacher and Indian-pupil:
"The design of this decoration is decidedly of a Moorish cast,
zigzag stripes and blocks of color with corkscrew tile work, and pillars of
red and orange blocks." "These frescoes," Father Bouchu told Corer,
"were probably permitted to satisfy the Indian nature's love of color."
Now partially restored, San Juan contains a small museum and was the
scene of the first archaeological dig at the missions.
The success of each mission was dependent on the planting and harvesting
of the first crop. Need of water for irrigating the fields and for direct
use gave priority to building the acequias next to the river. At Mission
Espada, the dam, aqueduct and acequia were begun about 1731 and completed
by 1745. Today, it is the oldest stone system in the United States
and still flows vigorously. Water laws in Texas are all basically Spanish
and land laws are traceable to their origin by still-in-use Spanish terms.
Both agriculture and ranching founded at the missions affected the
language and laws of Texas. Grange laws are derived from the Leyes de
Mesta established in New Spain in 1537 for regulating branding,
roundups, thefts of livestock and disposal of unbranded animals.
The language of the Indian vaquero, his chapperiaus, his espuelas, his
gal6n, translated easily and early into the chaps, spurs and ten gallon hat
of the Texas cowboy; and that liberty-loving Texas mustang got its name
from the mesteno, the Spanish wild horse.
The legal inheritances of Texas include the concept of community
property. Most laws pertaining to legitimacy and adoption were of Spanish
origin and remain today a part of the legal codes of Texas.
Government was modelled on the Spanish system. Each compound
was independent, with limited jurisdiction. Natives of ability and prestige
were appointed from among their own tribes. The Indians had their own
jail, and prescribed and inflicted minor punishment. Laborers were under
the control of an Indian overseer.
By the 18th Century mission Indians were sent out as teachers and
colonists at new locations, and nearly every expedition that was led out
from San Antonio against the Apaches and Comanches contained a strong
contingent of mission Indians.
At all of the missions hostile Indian raids and devastating epidemics
gradually reduced the number of neophytes. The venture that had flourished
in its initial stages rapidly declined as the century neared its end.
The Coahuiltecan-speaking Indians who lived at the missions had
roamed the Gulf Coast inland to the area of the San Antonio River, and
spoke many dialects. They were initially attracted to the missions for two
reasons: protection against the Apaches and Comanches, and food.
While historians refer to these nomadic sub-bands as being on the
lowest rung of the cultural ladder, under the guidance of the Franciscans
they became proficient in the Spanish language and adapted to Western
culture. They became artists and craftsmen, leaving a legacy of some of
the most beautiful architecture in the Southwest.
Spanish law gave the missionaries only a limited time in which to
complete their goals of training. and civilizing the Indians. In accordance
with this law, after a century of activity, the missions were closed and the
lands divided among the mission Indians. While the buildings remained,
most of them have had to be restored after years of neglect.
In the words of O'Neil Ford, architect for the preservation of the missions,
"the Missions are the most important and most beautiful examples
of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States .... persons from
all over the world have come to San Antonio to wonder at them, to study
their history and their great significance. Now we know that they are the
jewels of our river valley and the greatest documentation of our 18th Century
beginning." Mary Ann Noonan Guerra
"A protest must be recorded her4
of the sculpture of the Missions b!
The shameful chipping of the bea,
on for years . . . Good friend, fo:
name to the thousands scratched,!
not meant for such a purpose."
In 1890, William Corner was writing about structures long abandoned
and left open to vandals and the destructive working of time and weather,
as well as the occasional thoughtless tourist. Between 1793 and 1824 the
Missions had all been secularized, closed down by order of the Spanish X
Crown or the new Mexican Republic. In accordance with the decrees the :
Franciscans departed, and the lands and goods and houses of the Missions
were distributed to the few remaining Indians.
The result was early noted: Writing in 1843, William Bollaert, English
traveler and adventurer, observed that at San Jos6 "the images of the
saints and other ornamental parts have been sadly mutilated by the
soldiery," that Concepci6n's walls were in ruins, and of San Juan he
remarked that part of the belfry and walls only remained."
Espada though, he found in not quite so ruinous a state.
Seth Eastman's sketchbook contained several written descriptions
of the Mission ruins he was sketching in 1848 and 1849:
... "went to San Jos6 ... this old Mission was very finely
constructed with much sculpture in, from, around and over the
Door. A few Mexican families now reside around it and in
that portion of the church formerly occupied by the Priests.
And he too noted that the old Missions "are now going to
Frederick Law Olmsted in his "Journey
Through Texas," (1853-54) visited what he termed
"these celebrated religious establishments." He found
that the decorations of the doors and windows could still
be examined: "They are of stucco and are rude heads of
saints and mouldings, usually without grace." Olmstead
in fact, found little left to admire: "One of the
missions is a complete ruin; the others afford shelter to
Mexican occupants, who ply their trades and herd
their cattle and sheep in the old cells and courts.
Many is the picturesque sketch offered to
the pencil by such intrusion upon falling
dome, tower, and cloister."
Another eyewitness to and painter of
the decay of the old Mission structures was
Theodore Gentilz. Beginning in 1844, he
painted and sketched the ruins of the Missions
and left as valuable a visual record as
that of the earliest photographers. Gentilz'
field notes also tell us much. He observed
that the Missions were mostly in ruins
when he made his first sketches and water
colors. One of several studies he did of
San Jos6 (1882) shows the north side of
the ruined church building, its dome collapsed
and the gaping wall.
Many other artists painted the ruins
in the nineteenth century, all providing
evidence of their slow decline. Other
nineteenth century travellers and journalists
wrote of the ruins, some of them
lamenting what they considered as their Original bell tower, San Juan Capistrano. I
Texas Historical Foundation. Texas Heritage, Fall 1983. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45449/. Accessed May 28, 2016.